When senior point guard Elijah Kess was a sophomore reserve and Lake Clifton was getting ready to play in the state title game, Lakers' coach Herman "Tree" Harried pulled him aside.
"You're a tenth grader and about to win a state title," the player said he was told.
Kess says it was the best day of his life — the Lakers indeed brought home a state crown — and now he's striving to one-up it.
In his second year as a starter and team captain, he knows it's his turn to lead the Lakers to another championship.
"Last year as a junior, we didn't get there, so I've been on both sides," Kess said. "When we didn't get there last year, it made me work that much harder. I worked really hard in the summer and this year I want to put all the work I put in and prove it on the court."
Averaging 11 points and seven assists, Kess has led the No. 12 Lakers to a 9-1 start going into Friday's game against No. 3 Patterson.
Kess has enjoyed similar success in the clasroom, maintaining a 3.0 grade point average and making the school's Honor Roll all four years.
He is still weighing college options, with plans to continue his playing career, and would like to become a basketball coach.
What has been the key to the season so far?
Our key is staying together and playing good defense. Since we don't have a lot of size, we have to be a pest and keep pressuring teams. Play together, play smart. Every time somebody goes to the court, they have to bring something to the team.
How has your role changed as a senior captain?
This year, I got to be a leader, help score, make sure we stay under control on the court, keep the young guys calm. And just go out and play basketballand make sure everyone is having fun.
What is the key to being a successful leader?
It starts with the way I talk to them, and how I handle adversity. Say we're down two and some of the guys are rattled. I gotta bring the team together and say 'We're good, we got this.' I got to bring encouragement. I know if I look down then they are going to be down. But if I look up and say we got this, they're thinking 'OK, he knows we got it, so we got it.' I love the role. I learned from other players from the years before — Aaron Parks and Daquan Ross — and now it's my turn to make sure we do it right so we can be successul.
How do you balance school and basketball?
Living with my grandparents, they tell me that basketball is eventually going to stop and I have to have a back-up plan. And coach Tree always teaches us life skills. So I know if I get good grades, I can get in a good college and get a scholarship to play basketball. Now, I just want to make sure I keep my grades up. I don't want to slack off, I want to get them higher.
How important is basketball to you?
It means a lot. I just want to make my family proud. It's better for me to do something positive in my life than negative, like being on the streets. So I'm glad I'm staying off the streets and doing something positive with my life.
You're also involved in other activites at the school. How important and rewarding are they for you?
I just want to help the school and show I'm not just a leader on the court, but in the school, too. So if a teacher asks me to do this or that, there's no hesitation and it's no problem — I do it for them. It's important because I know the young kids are looking up to me — in school and in basketball — so I want to make sure I do the right thing.